film editing

Movie Trailer Editing: How Much Should You Reveal?

“So they’ve basically just shown us the full movie, then.”

It’s a common charge against many movie trailers, particularly in recent years. For whatever reason, it’s becoming common to show so much in the trailer that audiences wonder whether there’s any point in seeing the full cut.

It goes without saying that this is the exact opposite reaction that you want to elicit from your potential audience. Today, we’re going to look at the arguments for and against baring all during your movie trailer.

Warning: potential movie spoilers ahead!

Setting Out the Market Stall

A classic example of this would be the trailer to 2011’s “The Double,” which relies on a central plot twist that Richard Gere is the killer he claims to be hunting…

… something which is completely given away in the theatrical trailer:

Didn’t see the movie? Neither did anybody else. Commercially, it completely tanked (grossing $3m against a $17m budget), and we can’t help but suspect that the tell-all trailer was a deciding factor in the movie’s failure to garner interest.

But there is a case to be made for showing all your cards. Director Robert Zemeckis opines: “We know from studying the marketing of movies, people really want to know exactly everything that they are going to see before they go see the movie. It’s just one of those things. To me, being a movie lover and film student and a film scholar and a director, I don’t. What I relate it to is McDonald’s. The reason McDonald’s is a tremendous success is that you don’t have any surprises. You know exactly what it is going to taste like. Everybody knows the menu.”

Who is Dead?!

A compelling argument for sure, but a counter-point would be that this all applies only to specific types of movies; if you’re dealing in a formulaic genre, it’s generally good to reassure audiences that you’re hitting all the beats they’ve come to expect. Take the “Golden Eye” trailer, for instance — a lot of spoilers in there, but this was a Bond movie. There’s almost an unwritten contract of things a Bond movie needs to deliver, and the trailer is the best opportunity to advertise the fact that all of the boxes are ticked.

The same goes for remakes. The 2013 adaption of the Stephen King classic “Carrie” also had a spoiler-laden trailer, but for good reason; fans of the original needed assurance that all of the iconic scenes (such as the “prom reveal”) would be faithfully featured in the remake.

While Zemeckis makes a good point, unfortunately his movie “What Lies Beneath” probably wasn’t the best type of flick in which to pour every single plot reveal into the theatrical trailer:

It’s okay if you let slip that Tom Cruise will survive a big explosion in a “Mission Impossible” trailer. After all, nobody assumes for one moment that his fictional life is in any real jeopardy, and audiences already know he’ll live to survive for at least another movie for as long as the franchise remains profitable.

But a Hitchcockian-thriller relies heavily on a slow and suspenseful layering of reveals, and is entirely undermined when these reveals are telegraphed ahead of time.

Finding the Balance

Trailer editors working in comedy and horror also need to tread carefully. Viewers are remarkably good at spotting whether you’ve included all of your best gags and jump-scares within the trailer, which can be as much of a turn-off as a “Sixth Sense” trailer that reveals Bruce is already dead.

Ultimately, whether a movie trailer should hold its cards to the chest or bare all really depends on the individual movie itself. Balancing audience expectation and creating intrigue (as well as succinctly communicating what the film is about) is the recipe behind an effective movie trailer.

Gut intuition as an editor will get you most of the way, but consider extensive test screening of your trailer with different audiences to get an indication of whether you’ve struck the right balance.

And we cannot understate how important that balance is. After all, those three minutes of trailer can make or break your 90 minutes of feature.

What are some of your favorite film trailers? Let us know in the comments below!

A Beginner’s Guide to Film Editing Vocabulary


It was Francis Ford Coppola who said, “The essence of cinema is editing.” If you’re an aspiring film  editor, you know your craft matters — and you know it also matters how you speak and think about your craft. We’ve compiled a guide to help you beef up your terminology and learn to communicate about editing like a pro. The following are some fundamental digital editing terms  that editors should know: your concise guide to an editing vocabulary.


A transition where one shot is instantly followed by another.

Continuity Editing

Visual editing where shots are cut together in a clear and linear flow of uninterrupted action. This type of cutting seeks to maintain a continuous sense of time and space.

Continuity Error

When the action or elements of a scene don’t match across shots. For example, when a character breaks a glass window but in a later shot the window is shown undamaged.

Cross Cutting

Technique used to give the illusion that two story lines of action are happening at the same time by rapidly cutting back and forth between them.


The interruption of a continuously filmed action with a shot that’s peripherally related to the principal action.


When the end of one shot overlaps the start of the next one to create a gradual scene transition.


The process of taking raw footage to select and combine shots to create a complete motion picture.

Establishing Shot

A shot that gives viewers an idea of where the scene is taking place. These usually involve a shot from a long distance, such as a bird’s eye view.

Eyeline Match

A technique based on the idea that viewers want to see what on-screen characters are seeing. For example, if a character is looking intently at an off-screen object, the following shot will be of that object.


A visual effect used to indicate a change in place and time. This involves a gradual brightening as a shot opens or a gradual darkening as the shot goes black or to another color. Sound also fades in and out to convey the change.


A wipe that takes the shape of a shrinking or growing circle, depending on if the scene is opening or ending. Rarely used today but very common during the silent era.

J Cuts

An editing technique that allows the audience to first hear audio from a shot, and then see it.

Jump Cut

An abrupt cut that creates a lack of continuity between shots by leaving out parts of the action.

L Cut

An editing changeover between one shot and another in film, where the visual and audio shift at different times. Also called a split edit.

Matched Cut

A cut joining two shots with matching compositional elements. This helps to establish strong continuity of action. One of the more notable examples of this technique is from a famous scene in “2001: A Space Odyssey.”


A sequence of shots assembled in juxtaposition of one another to create an emotional impact, condense a story,  or convey an idea. A famous example is “Psycho’s” shower scene.


Graphics or text that moves up or down the screen. This technique is typically used for credits by having text move from bottom to top.

Rough Cut

The first editing pass done for a film. (The former sentence is not entirely accurate as an Assembly Cut is the first editing pass done for a film, but it depends on how one defines editing, so I think this is o.k.).  A rough cut receives further polishing and editing before making its way out to audiences.

Sequence Shot

A long take composed of one shot that extends for an entire scene or sequence. Usually requires complex camera movements and action. Here is a notable example from GoodFellas. (This isn’t a term that is particularly important for an editor to know.)

Shot Reverse Shot

The alternating of over-the-shoulder-shots, usually used during a conversation between two characters.


The process of adding sound effects and music and/or enhancing the existing audio with effects.


The transition from one shot to another with a visible pattern or element. No longer used in today’s films but very common in early cinema.

Any more important editing vocabulary items to add to our guide? Let us know in the comments below!